Wednesday, January 29, 2014

5 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Reading Other Books

Have you ever seen this quote?  "The six golden rules of writing:  Read, read, read, and write, write, write." - Ernest Gaines

There is a lot of truth behind that.  Stephen King had another one:  "If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write."

So what can you do to improve your writing through reading? Let’s take a look.


Okay, read the book.  Enjoy it and take your time!  When you're done, go back and look at what you read.  Which parts did you like or hate?  Which parts went fast, and which parts went slow?  Did you cry, or feel angry, or smile uncontrollably at any point?

Look at those parts and examine the sentences.  Look at WORDS and PHRASES and how long the sentences are.  Long sentences (15+ words) are generally exposition, while short sentences (usually 3-6 words) are used to emphasize action.

Books ARE emotional puzzles, after all.
You should notice that generic words (it, that, like, the) missing, because they interfere with imagery.  Sometimes they are unavoidable, but you won't see them as often as distinct objects and actions.


We all know the 5-point structure:  Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Denouement.  But why should we follow this and why does it work?


There are no funny pictures for plot structure.
The reader meets the characters, befriends them, and gets to "know the normal."  Then BOOM!  Something happens that throws the characters off-track, something they may not have seen coming.  Now the reader wants to know what will happen and wants the problem to be solved.

If you can make the reader care, they WILL finish the story.  So study where the authorputs certain events, who they affect, and the choices they force upon the characters.  Adapt this to your own story.  You'll see how smooth the events work together and that it creates a believable setting for the reader to live in.


Seriously, listen to them.  Watch what words they use.  What they emphasize.  How do they make you feel?  Do you tense up, smile, laugh, or become embarrassed?  Dialogue is crucial.  Dialogue is the BASIS of characterization.  You can describe in straight-up prose exactly who your character is through his interests, fears, emotions, friends, family, pets, school grades, and more, but I GUARANTEE you readers will get bored and skip ahead.

I bet some of you skimmed that last sentence because you just wanted to get on to the next because DESCRIPTION IS BORING. It really is. Readers want to experience a character, not be handed a paper with a checklist of his likes and dislikes.  We want to see a character react.  We want to see them cry and laugh or yell in anger.  That's why good characterization matters.

And a conversation between two characters (or more) is interesting to read!

This picture is weird, but somehow illustrates my point.
Fun fact:  In his novel Hills Like White Elephants, Ernest Hemingway only describes ONE character:  "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table."  That is the only physical reference to ANY character in the entire book.


This is similar to what I said in my post "How to Create a Vile Villain." If readers care about the characters, and the villain kills someone or wreaks havoc that destroys a character's life forever, your reader will see how determined the bad guy is.

Create conflict and use it to no end.  Keep it reasonable, but put it in whenever possible because it drives up the story's tension and the reader won't be able to put the book down.

Think about Tony Stark's involvement in the world.
In Les Miserables, Javert keeps coincidentally encountering Jean Valjean.  If you know the story, you'll know Javert is seeking Valjean because of a previous crime and his obsessive drive for "justice" creates a tension between them.

Do that. Figure out how the villain and hero (or other characters) interact with each other, and how every choice forces a reaction.


Watch when the first "turning point" of the story occurs. You know, when the main character's life is changed forever and he must embark on a journey of self-discovery and bravery in order to right the wrong, or meet his goal. That part.

 Focus on how the author crafts that scene. What emotions are there? What words create the scene? Who is affected? Why is this important to the story overall?

Answer these questions and then move on to the next conflict.  Do the same thing.  Find a pattern.  Then figure out how these conflicts are resolved.  I've seen many books work in this "scheme" of conflict-to-resolution:


This visual shows you is that the largest conflicts tend to show up first and disappear last. Conflicts of other degrees and importance rise and fall in this sort of "palindromic" fashion. The least important conflicts tend to happen near the middle, like an argument between a couple, a minor character friends/family with the main character is injured or sick, that sort of thing.

Tension that comes and goes.  See what I'm saying?

What are some other ways we can improve our writing by reading?

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